Exodus Of Prosecutors Strains County's Judicial System

April 05, 1992|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Staff writer

When Lillian P. Clark left the county Circuit Court's staff of prosecutors on March 27, it marked the eighth departure from an office of nine lawyers in just more than a year.

The departure of so many prosecutors in such a short period has left the office with an "experience drain," says Deputy State's Attorney Dwight S. Thompson. Less-seasoned prosecutors from the District Court have filled most of the jobs.

The exodus occurred as a record 11 homicide cases headed for trial. On top of that came budget cuts, hiring freezes and ever-increasing caseloads.

Despite the upheaval, prosecutors say, the office hasmanaged to cope.

"I feel like we've gotten over the hump with themurder cases," said Thompson. Nine of the 11 have been tried or resolved through plea bargains. There have been no acquittals.

But others say the departures put added stress on the county's already strained judicial process.

Some defense lawyers say the staff turnover has caused problems in scheduling cases and negotiating pleas. The replacement of veteran prosecutors with less experienced lawyers has added to the difficulties.

"It seems to me that they have just a couple of prosecutors who are overloaded with serious and time-consumingcases and they've had some difficulty with scheduling," said Louis Willemin, an assistant public defender.

In some cases, reassignmentto a new prosecutor has been a stumbling block in plea negotiations because the replacement isn't as familiar with the case, said RichardBernhardt, an assistant public defender.

"You're coming up to a trial date and talking to a prosecutor who has really just been dumpedon and it makes it difficult to negotiate a plea that really serves everybody's interests," he said.

In one murder case, the lack of sufficient staff could result in dismissal of a murder charge, Bernhardt said.

The trial of William Venoy Brodnax, who was charged with first-degree murder in the killing of his girlfriend, was set to go forward last July 31.

The first postponement was granted because the judge had scheduling conflicts. It was again delayed after the judge learned that the prosecutor had another murder trial scheduled at the same time -- the case of Eric Tirado, who later was convicted of first-degree murder in the shooting death of Cpl. Theodore D. Wolf.

The prosecutor, Timothy G. Wolf -- who left the department in January -- informed the judge that there were no qualified attorneys in theoffice to take over the Brodnax case for him, Bernhardt said.

Circuit Judge Cornelius F. Sybert Jr., found Brodnax guilty on Jan. 31, and sentenced him to 30 years in prison. Brodnax has appealed the case and requested that the conviction be dismissed, claiming his right to a speedy trial was denied.

The departure of state's attorneys began in January 1991, when three veteran prosecutors resigned to opena law practice. They were followed a few months later by prosecutorsTimothy McCrone and Jason Shapiro.

Wolf left the office two months ago to start his own practice. Clark, an assistant state's attorneyfor eight years, left the office a week ago.

Five of the positions have been filled with lawyers from the District Court division of the prosecutors' office, which handles misdemeanor cases. The departing prosecutors had from two to nine years of experience in the CircuitCourt office. Their replacements from district court have about one to two years of experience there, Thompson said.

"Obviously when you lose seasoned people it's going to take a little time for the replacements to gain the expertise displayed in the past," said county State's Attorney William Hymes. "These people are well trained and ready to step in there and take their turn trying the cases."

The state's attorneys office has offered intensive jury trial training to thenewcomers. Even so, Bernhardt says, the new attorneys are under great pressure.

"With a high turnover rate you run the risk of asking prosecutors to do more than they've been trained for," he said. "I'm not saying it can't be done, but it puts a strain on the individual prosecutors."

Assistant State's Attorney Joseph Murtha, who came tothe office in October after only nine months in the District Court divi

sion has since gained experience in murder trials. He assistedsenior prosecutor Kate O'Donnell in a death penalty case and handleda plea in another murder case.

"I think a lot of people thought there was going to be a lack of stability in the prosecution of serious crimes, but I have found there's a lot of guidance here," Murtha said. "I felt very comfortable with asking questions in situations thatI wasn't familiar with that you just can't research."

The turnover has meant that the few remaining senior prosecutors have been carrying a larger than average amount of serious cases. Two of the four senior jobs remain vacant.

Bernhardt questions why the office didn'ttake steps to hire more experienced attorneys to replace the veterans.

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